These articles were published in the Spectacular Slovakia travel guide, published annually by The Slovak Spectator since 1996. The latest editions can be obtained from our online shop.



Are you mad?

Some tips on using a bicycle to get around in Slovakia

By James Thomson

    A road-side pit-stop in the High Tatras.
 A road-side pit-stop in the High Tatras.
 Photos by James Thomson

Using a bicycle as a way of seeing Slovakia is not (quite) as crazy as it sounds. Admittedly, cycling around the whole country would take a long time and be an uncomfortable experience in places: the geography, especially in the northern, more hilly, parts frequently funnels all the traffic onto a single valley road.

But daunting though those hills look, they can be overcome by anyone with a bike and a bit of determination. (OK: a lot of determination.) The reward? Superb vistas, as good as any in Europe, not to mention the freedom to gorge yourself on the local food and drink with a clear conscience.

And if the hills aren't for you, there are a surprising number of flat rides in a country better known for its mountains.

Slovakia is not densely populated, but there are villages and towns every few kilometres where you can refuel or find somewhere to stay. There are numerous (though poorly-advertised) cycle routes spanning the country. On the roads, traffic outside towns is generally light, especially in the east.

Also, in these environmentally conscious times, you can travel proud in the knowledge that you are seeing some of the world without helping to ruin it.

Taking to the rails

    Should have taken the rýchlik.... Riding the rails.
 Should have taken the rýchlik.... Riding the rails.
 Photos by James Thomson

Since we've established that you're probably not going to cycle the whole way, and simply hitching your bicycle to the back of your Winnebago would rather undermine the environmental justification for this means of transport, it's worth considering how you will get yourself and your bike around.

The good news is that the railway network here is, if not exactly welcoming, at least fairly accommodating.

The fee for taking a bicycle with you on a train journey, irrespective of the distance travelled or the number of connections, is extremely reasonable - less than €2. The exceptions are EC (EuroCity) and IC (InterCity) trains, for which there is an extra supplement. These are the fastest international trains and often don't have a baggage car so are probably best avoided, unless you are going abroad.

Instead, look for a train with an R number (the R is for rýchlik, or express - though for some of them this is a slightly optimistic description). These almost always have baggage cars, which can be identified by the slightly protruding frog-eye windows on the side of the wagon (which allow the guard to spot you coming down the platform and hide until the train is about to leave). They are normally the second from the locomotive, and (I like to think of this, without any grounds whatsoever, as a nod to cyclists in need of resuscitation) the restaurant car is often next door.

    Half-way up another hill...
 Half-way up another hill...
 Photos by James Thomson

Some baggage cars have fitted bike-racks of the classic, wheel-breaking variety, but most are bare and there is normally space to lie your bike on its side if you prefer. Once it's in the van, the railway company is responsible for its security as far as your destination. Be aware that if you're getting off at a minor station where there is no platform the guards have a habit of half-passing/half-tossing your bike to you.

On local trains you just wedge your bike near the door, where there's normally plenty of room, though the newest trains - for instance on the Orava valley line - have a spiffy hook (though only one per train) from which you can hang your bike up by its front wheel.

Night trains are another matter. Most of these don't seem to have baggage cars at all (though why people travelling at night would be any less likely to have bulky luggage remains a mystery). As a result there is some confusion about whether bikes are allowed on these trains or not. Tickets are sold for them (suggesting they are allowed), but the attendants on the train can sometimes baulk at the idea. Normally space can be found (on quiet trains you might end up with your bike in the couchette or sleeper compartment with you), but if you want avoid the fuss it's easier to travel by day. Which is a pity, because night trains in Slovakia (as in most countries which have them) are generally a great way to cover long distances.

    The open road: the Bukov Hills, in eastern Slovakia
 The open road: the Bukov Hills, in eastern Slovakia
 Photos by James Thomson

Travelling by bus with a bike is dicier since the rules are even less clear (partly a reflection of the fact that there are dozens of different operators, versus just one for trains) and the drivers are wont to be even more mulish than their counterparts on the railways when it comes to non-standard requests. That said, they can also, occasionally, be very accommodating (see 'A ride on the wild side' in the section on Prešov Region).

Buckle up

Riding through the Slovak countryside is fairly straightforward: pick a route; follow it; enjoy the view.

Cycling in towns, on the other hand, presents a whole galaxy of exciting experiences, though these are typically just more extreme forms of those that any urban cyclist will be familiar with.

First of all, be warned that there are some extraordinarily bad drivers out there (see attached article). 'Safe place to pass' is a phrase which has yet to enter the Slovak driving lexicon, even when applied to one car overtaking another, so expecting it to apply to cars overtaking bicycles is, unfortunately, wishful thinking.

    Fellow eco-travellers, in Ukraine.
 Fellow eco-travellers, in Ukraine.
 Photos by James Thomson

Unlike some European cities, you will see relatively few other cyclists on the road, so there is basically none of the 'safety in numbers' effect from which riders benefit elsewhere.

And given that some drivers seem reluctant to acknowledge cyclists' right to exist, awareness of their need for space is even more limited. For instance, drivers using their horn as a substitute for their brakes when approaching a cyclist does not seem to be considered bad form.

That said, and despite oft-heard complaints about 'terrible traffic' (one suspects this is actually a point of quiet national pride), Slovak traffic is still quite light by American or western European standards, so negotiating city-centre streets is, on the whole, slightly less stressful.

    With the Good Soldier Švejk, in Humenné.
 With the Good Soldier Švejk, in Humenné.
 Photos by James Thomson

Trams and trolley-buses are another thing to be aware of (though only Bratislava and Košice have trams). Both can accelerate deceptively quickly and quietly, so it's always worth a second glance. Tramlines (occupied or not) are another obvious hazard: unless you're riding on ultra-fat mountain bike tyres, always approach them at a more-or-less perpendicular angle. If your wheels get stuck in them, and you have somehow remained upright, stop and lift them out: trying to maintain balance without freedom of lateral movement is amusing, but futile. And be extra careful when it's wet: the rails can be extremely slippery (the same goes for cobbles).

As a result of the super-soft tarmac compound used on city streets, and some bus drivers who appear to be taking their cues from Formula One ('why brake over 100 metres when I can stop this bus in 10?'), the road surface at junctions often resembles a ploughed field, traversing which can result in dental realignment for unprepared riders.

You're not alone

    Back in Bratislava, beneath the spire of St Martin’s Cathedral.
 Back in Bratislava, beneath the spire of St Martin’s Cathedral.
 Photos by James Thomson

Despite the scarcity of cyclists on the roads, cycling is actually quite popular in Slovakia and there are bike shops in most towns.

Cycling seems generally to be regarded as a leisure activity rather than a means of transport. In summer, for instance, the Danube cycle paths near Bratislava are thronged with Lycra-clad cyclists riding some very expensive wheels - while the parking areas at either end are filled with cars sporting bike racks. Ironically, potentially horrific near misses (especially between cyclists and in-line skaters) seem to occur far more frequently on the paths than on the roads. Take it easy, though, and you'll be fine.

Slovakia's long-distance cycle routes are generally excellent, often traffic-free and well worth trying (see 'A ride along the Morava' and 'A ride along the Danube' in the section on Bratislava Region).

    Cyclists prohibited: the Slovak-Ukrainian border at Vyšné Nemecké
 Cyclists prohibited: the Slovak-Ukrainian border at Vyšné Nemecké
 Photos by James Thomson

There is not (as far as I am aware) any comprehensive English-language cycling guide to Slovakia, though there is a series of locally-published regional maps (Podrobná cyckloturistická mapa, published by VKÚ Harmanec; look for the green cover) with cycle routes marked and accompanying booklets containing a game stab at an English translation of the route description alongside the original Slovak. These also contain elevation charts for the hilly routes, giving you a visual indication of how murderously steep each incline is going to be.

But Slovakia is sufficiently small that a good road map of the region you intend to explore will normally be enough to plan a satisfying and relatively traffic-free ride.

Happy travels!


These articles and related information were published in Spectacular Slovakia 2009, which you can obtain from our online shop.

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